These men stole an entire bus full of kids.
Chowchilla in the 1970s was a quiet farming town where nothing exciting ever happened. It was certainly not the kind of town you would expect an entire bus full of children to go missing from.
It was one of the last days of summer school. 26 kids ages ranging from 5–14 were being taken back to their homes by bus. The bus driver was a man named Frank Edward Ray, who often went by Ed. Ed was previously a farmer and became a bus driver who all the kids loved. The kids had so much fun at summer school that they all signed a petition to extend their time by two weeks.
While driving down a rural road, the bus came across a white van that was parked in the road and blocking their way. The bus had to carefully get around it and noticed that the hood of the van was up. Ed called out the bus window to see if they needed help being the kind person that Ed was. Three men with pantie hoes on their heads jumped out of the van with sawed-off shotguns and got in the bus. They demanded that Ed went to the back of the bus while they yelled at the children. Ed did his best to reassure the kids that everything was going to be okay.
To demonstrate and to give the reader a clear idea of just how young some of these kids were at the time, this is something that one of the kids reported later.
Monica, being the youngest child on the bus, noticed that the legs of the pantie hoes hung down off the top of their heads like bunny ears. Monica asked one of the men if he was the Easter bunny.
One kidnapper began driving the bus while another drove a white van. The bus came to a stop in a bamboo field where another van was waiting for them. The intruders forced half of the kids and Ed into one of the vans and the other half of the kids in the other van. They made the kids jump from the bus to the vans so that they would not leave any footprints on the ground.
It was pitch black in the vans where the reported temperature was over 100 degrees inside. The kids were in the vans for 11 hours without any water and had no way to go to the bathroom. The kids peed and threw up in the vans and Ed tried his best to help console the kids.
The kids had been missing for some time and the parents were beginning to freak out. They are calling the police and making reports that their kids never made it home. When the police could not locate the missing children, the FBI was called in. Eventually, the bus in the bamboo field. Police found it empty and found tire tracks moving away from the bus. It was very clear that someone had pulled another vehicle up to the bus to take the kids.
After almost 12 hours in the van, it finally came to a stop. The kidnappers yanked Ed out first, shutting the van doors behind him. Then they would take one child at a time, closing the door behind each one of them before returning for another. The survivors later reported that they thought they were being taken out one by one to be killed. One kidnapper asked their name while another asked their age and the third asked for their address. They also took a little piece of clothing from each of them.
The kidnappers had buried a moving van in a ditch in the California Rock and Gravel Quarry long before they took the children and Ed hostage. They had each kid and Ed climb down a ladder into the van where they had left mattresses, peanut butter, bread, and cereal, which was enough for only one meal.
The kidnappers had removed the ladder, closed the top of the trunk with a manhole cover, and then put truck batteries over the manhole so no one could get out. The kidnappers buried them between 6–12 feet of dirt. The survivors reported hearing dirt and rock being shoveled onto the top of the moving van and they said they all believed that was where they would die.
The kids and Ed were in the moving van for an additional 12 hours. The fans that the kidnappers had put in the bus were supposed to be like some kind of makeshift ventilation system. The fans had run out of batteries and the kids and Ed were slowly beginning to suffocating. The roof of the van was also starting to cave in from the weight of the dirt.
At this point, everyone was sure they would die. Ed and some of the older kids decided that if they were going to die, they might as well try and escape. They worked together to stack all the mattresses so that they could reach the manhole cover. Trying to get the manhole to budge took hours, but just as they were about to give up, one of the boys had yelled that they had seen the manhole cover move. After many hours, the boys finally managed to move the manhole cover with the truck battery on top. Ed sent Michael, the oldest boy, up to see what was going on. He reported that there was a big box over the hole but on the other side of the box was just dirt. They climbed into the box, and then dug through the dirt which took another hour or so until they found sunlight.
As the light poured into the van, the kids screamed with delight. But they were also scared to leave. They didn’t know where the kidnappers were but most importantly, they didn’t know where they were.
As it turned out, the kidnappers were taking a nap. They had tried to call the local police department to demand ransom for $5,000,000 but the phone lines were all busy with family members calling in. Since they were not able to get their ransom money right away, they decided to take a nap.
While these horrible people slept, the kids and Ed were escaping. When they escaped, they saw a man in the rock quarry. The man looked over and saw all the kids and he said,
“The world has been looking for you.”
The Aftermath and Investigation
The kids were brought back to the police jail because that was the only place big enough for all of them. Despite everything, they were mostly unharmed with some cases of mild heatstroke. Investigators discovered that one of the kidnappers was the son of the man who owned the rock quarry. Police realized this because the only person who would have access to the quarry besides the owner was Fred Woods, the son. He quickly became one of the first suspects.
Ed was able to give one of the license plate numbers from the van under hypnoses at the police station. This helped investigators get a search warrant which they used to search Fred Wood’s parent’s mansion. There they found one of the guns used in the kidnapping and found a literal document titled “plan” that detailed the whole thing along with a ransom note. The kidnappers had been planning this crime for over a year and they had buried the van a few months prior to the kidnapping. People who worked at the quarry also stated that they saw the defendants digging before the crime occurred but did not know why.
Richard Schoenfeld turned himself in. He was the youngest and showed the most remorse of the three. Fred was caught by the Canadian police after he fled and James was caught near California. The three were put in a police line up and the kids were able to identify all of them through voice recognition. All three of the men had come from rich families and one had a trust fund of over 100 million dollars. Seemingly, there should have been no reason for these men to commit the crimes that they had.
All three plead guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom and they were charged with 8 accounts of bodily harm but they refused to plead guilty to it because that would carry a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.
The kids all testified at the trials. On February 17, 1978, they were given life sentences without the possibility of parole. Their lawyers appealed the charges of bodily harm because they claimed that by the legal definition, the kids did not suffer bodily harm. Because of this, it was changed to life with the possibility of parole. Richard, the one who turned himself in, was granted parole in June of 2012, 36 years after the crime, and two years after that his brother James was paroled. Fred is still in prison.
The kids and Ed were rewarded a trip to Disneyland and Ed was given several awards including one given by the California governor. The town of Chowchilla even had a whole day dedicated to Ed and the kids. Despite the happy ending, the kids grew up with lots of trauma, alcohol use, and some minor run in’s with the law. The kids, now adults, reported that they had frequent nightmares and sometimes dreamt of being shot in the desert or left to die after being buried alive. Most of these survivors have kids of their own but have reported that they are extremely strict. While some of them stumbled at the beginning, they all went on to live fairly normal lives. Ed passed away in May 2012 at the age of 91 and he maintained relationships with the kids that he saved throughout his life. Many of the kids that he saved were even there when he passed peacefully away.
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